Politics and scholarships: when will the bond be severed?

March 09, 1995|By Patrick Ercolano

ANY PARENT who has ever tried to persuade a small child to surrender his security blanket can appreciate the frustration of reformers who have tried to get Maryland lawmakers to relinquish their grip on the legislative scholarship program.

This is the program that allows state senators and delegates to give college students annual awards totaling several million dollars in public money. The current amount in the scholarship kitty, which grows yearly, is $8.5 million.

If you want to call it a huge political slush fund for lawmakers, you wouldn't be far off the mark. However, the fact that it's built with taxpayers' bucks -- not contributions from willing lobbyists or other political insiders -- makes this slush fund a little different from others.

Many legislatures in other states had similar scholarship giveaways, but they were killed -- or, rather, died of embarrassment -- years ago. Thus the 127-year-old Maryland program has the distinction of being the only one still operating in the country.

Like a child's beloved blankie, the program makes lawmakers feel all warm and happy -- and safe. They use the scholarships to gain the goodwill of their constituents, which can translate into .. votes at election time. After all, how many scholarship recipients and their families) are going to cast votes against the generous senator or delegate who helped defray their college bills?Another troubling factor about the scholarships is the selection process. Many scholarships have been awarded to lawmakers' friends and associates, and even to members of the lawmakers' own families.

Also of concern is the fact that each grant is rather small, certainly not enough to significantly help reduce most college tuitions today. But each award is just enough for a legislator to win the gratitude of recipients and their families.

Among state senators, each with about $120,000 to pass around annually, the average award is less than $1,000. (Each delegate has much less to give away, around $10,000, and yet the typical delegate award is larger than the average senatorial scholarship.)

In recent years, a handful of legislators and groups such as Common Cause of Maryland have increased the pressure on the lawmakers to phase out the program. The House of Delegates passed substantial reform bills in 1993 and 1994, and is expected to do so again this session.

The greatest resistance to change has come from the Senate, the body controlling roughly 75 percent of program funds. Many senators feel they have a lot to lose, particularly veteran members who are reluctant to surrender a patronage perk they've enjoyed so long.

Last November's elections, though, saw victories by a number of Senate candidates who told Common Cause they would support removing the legislature from the scholarship business.

Senate leaders, sensing this shift but still wishing to cling to the program, have just drafted a bill that might be described as a half-loaf of reform. It would create a senatorial program in which recipients and grant amounts would be determined by a nine-member committee in each senator's district. Many legislators already appoint committees to award the scholarships, so this doesn't exactly qualify as monumental change.

However, the bill would dilute the senators' influence on the program. It apparently includes an additional option enabling senators to turn over their awards to state education officials. Earlier this week, it was still unclear whether this option could be exercised with or without the stipulation that the grants be distributed by senatorial district.

Advocates of ending the program altogether say this new proposal is a step in the right direction, but they aren't happy that it would let senators maintain even the slightest control over the scholarships.

The reformers also are skeptical that the measure is sincere. They believe there's a chance that if the bill passes the Senate, House members would kill it out of resentment that they have made major attempts to eliminate the program while the Senate bill only has the guise of reform.

In the event that the House does vote down the bill, Senate leaders could throw up their hands and say, "See, we tried to make a serious effort, but those people in the House wouldn't hear of it." And then the legislative scholarship would continue on its merry way, completely unchanged.

A few weeks remain in the current General Assembly session. There is still time to craft significant reform of the legislative scholarship program. But is there the willingness? If not this year, with the memory of last year's campaign commitments still fresh, then full reform might be postponed indefinitely. Unfortunately, that would suit a lot of legislators just fine.

Breaking Junior of his blankie habit was never this tough.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Evening Sun.

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